Who will show leadership on climate change?

The news on climate change keeps getting worse, yet Canada continues to keep its head buried in the (oil) sand. There is now no hope of meeting our international commitment to lower annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 by 17 per cent below the 2005 level. In fact, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has never even tried to keep its promise.

The news on climate change keeps getting worse, yet Canada continues to keep its head buried in the (oil) sand.

There is now no hope of meeting our international commitment to lower annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 by 17 per cent below the 2005 level. In fact, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government has never even tried to keep its promise.

We have to become much more aggressive and soon.

A draft of the next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warns the world is already seeing harmful impacts on food production, devastating heat waves, rising sea levels, extreme weather with floods in some regions and drought in others and the prospect that all of this will get much worse unless we act with a sense of urgency.

In Canada, the recent report from Natural Resources Canada — Canada in a Changing Climate — also warns of the increasing urgency in curbing greenhouse gas emissions, observing that the negative impacts of climate change are already impacting the country.

The growing risks to human well-being led UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to host a summit in New York on Tuesday to address the climate challenge and energize world leaders for the critical negotiations for a new climate treaty in December of next year.

U.S. President Barack Obama attended Ban’s dinner but Harper skipped the event. While Obama wants to act on climate change, despite a hostile Congress, Harper doesn’t, despite his parliamentary majority.

Yet we face an election next year where climate has to be one of the top issues — we will be electing a government for the next five years, and the need to act on climate will be even greater. Whoever forms the government will have to go to Paris in December 2015, right after the election, with a climate action plan in hand.

Of the three political parties, the NDP has shown the most leadership on climate change, promising a cap-and-trade system which, while not as effective as a carbon tax, is an improvement over the do-nothing policy of the Conservatives. The Liberals have no policy.

The Conservative priority is rapid development of the oilsands and Harper frequently makes it clear that he will oppose anything that affects jobs in the oilpatch, effectively ruling out serious action.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has stressed the importance of carbon pricing, arguing government has to ensure that “the polluters pay for the pollution they create instead of leaving these costs to the next generation.” Greenhouse gas emissions are clearly a form of pollution.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has no policy. In June, he attacked the Harper government for its failure to act, declaring the Liberals were “committed to responsible resource development, while promoting clean energy and reducing carbon emissions.”

But what does this mean? In a recent interview with journalist Paul Wells, Trudeau waffled, only saying he wanted “to have a mature conversation about what is the best way to do it.”

The leadership on climate change in Canada so far has come from three provinces — Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. But in their recent gathering, all provincial premiers agreed on a revised national energy strategy that included a commitment to act on climate change, though how remains unspecified. Quebec’s new premier, Philippe Couillard, plans a climate summit next spring.

In the meantime, an encouraging new report from the Global Commission on the Economy and the Environment contradicts Harper’s oft-stated claim that climate actions such as a carbon tax are “job killers” by showing that action to deal with climate change can be pro-growth. The world is expected to spend about US$90 trillion on new power plants, public transit and other infrastructure over the next 15 years. By adding on another five per cent, or roughly $4 trillion, the world could embrace green infrastructure and greater energy efficiency the commission said. Additional benefits would include improved human health. What applies to the global economy could apply in Canada as well.

Leadership is about dealing with needed change, recognizing there will be both costs and gains.

On that score, Harper has so far failed, Mulcair at least has the outlines of a plan though it needs more flesh, and Trudeau is waffling.

We need better, and the coming election is the time to put the politicians to the test if we care about the future of life on our planet.

Economist David Crane is a syndicated Toronto Star columnist. He can be reached at crane@interlog.com.

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